Life Lessons from Video Games Versus Mode: Bonus Stage!

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While Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat were locked in deadly battle for arcade supremacy other franchises came and went on the console market.  TMNT Tournament Fighters, Clayfighter, and the dreaded Shaq-Fu all appeared to take advantage of the fighting game popularity.

One franchise stood out to me and, though it’s vanished into retro-obscurity, it is probably my favorite of the bunch.

Eternal Champions

Eternal Champions showed up as a Sega-only franchises on the Genesis and utilized the same aggressive marketing campaign that Sega used to fight Nintendo.  I remember seeing the plastic clamshell box stalking around the residential hallways chasing down other fighting games throughout the house.  Admittedly these kinds of ads are a turn off to me.  I’d rather not compare one item to another, just let me know what’s good about the one you’re selling me.  But Eternal Champions won me over.  It combined the cartoon-style animations and unique character styles of Street Fighter with the brutality and violence of Mortal Kombat.

The premise was terrific.  A group of warriors, all throughout time, each meets a premature demise . The Eternal Champion has offered them a chance to return to their respective time, moments before their deaths, and have the chance to prevent their deaths before they happened.  I loved the premise, and when the Sega CD sequel offered more fighters and more options I jumped on that version too.

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My copy of EC: Challenge from the Dark Side

At the time reviewers, who are always an annoying snarky bunch I’ve found (and I still maintain it’s easier to write a bad review than a good one…recently reviewers don’t think it’s “cool” to like things they review), called it a Mortal Kombat rip-off, based solely on its bloodiness.  But the gameplay and presentation was FAR closer to Street Fighter than Mortal Kombat.

The special moves, character movement, and attacks all resembled Street Fighter.  I remember playing as a caveman named “Slash” (I was then and am still a GnR fan I had to play as Slash) and how incredibly hot the portrait of Shadow Yamoto looked in the game, so much so that I hated to beat her up.  My favorites on the Genesis were RAX, the futuristic kickboxer and Midknight, the vampire.  In the Sega CD sequel Challenge from the Darkside I added Chin Wo and Ramses III to my favorites list.  They all used specific martial arts styles as well and, since I was deep into Tae Kwon Do at the time, I loved the variety.

The kills that were the most fun came from the environments.  I remember the car in Larcen’s stage riddling you with bullets and getting sucked into the big fan on Blade’s.  Dinosaurs ate you, you got electrocuted, and burned.  The tricky part was getting your opponent into the right position to meet their destruction.

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Description of moves including some of the kills!

UN-like Mortal Kombat, it required the strategy and techniques of Street Fighter to defeat an enemy.   Often killing your enemy was just an awesome bonus.  The Challenge from the Darkside offered more kills, challenging, but terrific if you pulled them off, and often related to stories.  Sometimes a new event happened you’d never seen before and, remember this is PRE-INTERNET, you had to figure out how that happened.

Added to this was the secret element.  Eternal Champions was loaded with secret characters.  From a Senator (taking potshots at political anti-game violence grandstanding) and my favorites, the animal characters, a chicken named Crispy, a monkey named Zuni , an owl (loved the owl) named Hooter, a snake named Slither, and a dog named Yappy.  These were simple diversions from the regular game…but brought humor and replay value into the fighting game, which can be sorely missing in some of them.

Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Darkside, along with Sega Saturn’s X-Men: Children of the Atom, remain my favorite non-Street Fighter fighting games.  It doesn’t suffer the same “Duke Nukem” effect I mentioned that impacts Mortal Kombat for me and is still loads of fun to play.  I personally would like to see a return to the Eternal Champions franchise.  Updated in the same way as Street Fighter IV, keeping true to 2D fighting roots but updating the graphics and gameplay.  The premise, characters, and styling already exists.  You’ve got a foundation, gaming industry, get to it!

So while Street Fighter reigns supreme in my fighting game memories…Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side holds a special place as the potentially the best fighting game no one remembers…and potentially a challenge to SF’s throne…

For a full look at my love for classic Sega check out my love letter to the Genesis-Saturn days!

Life Lessons from Video Games Versus Mode: SFII v MK Finale!

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There are two kinds of people in this world: those who prefer Street Fighter and those who prefer Mortal Kombat.  Yes we can love them both, but if you were stuck on a desert island which would you prefer?  We all have an answer.   This will be no surprise, I’m a Street Fighter person.

Part of it has to do with my introduction to it.  I learned it first so its moves in a one-on-one style tournament fighter became second nature to me.  I’m not a fancy or elaborate Street Fighter player, I keep things basic, but I also win a LOT (right Mike? >: ) )  Here’s why I prefer Capcom’s Street Fighter to Acclaim’s Mortal Kombat.  Keep in mind I’m only dealing with the 16-bit iterations of the games, not the later ones.

Longevity: I don’t mean one series has or will outlast the other.  We’ve seen bad versions and weird crossovers for both franchises, I mean the longevity of these 16-bit games themselves.  Street Fighter II is a fun game.  All the special moves, all the different characters and strategies, it still feels the same way as it did when I first played it.  Mortal Kombat has suffered the Duke Nukem effect for me.  Despite all its violence and cutting edge effects…it all seems somehow…childish.  As though maybe that kind of thing is only really cool to a 12-15 year old.  Mortal Kombat’s brutality actually feels like a gimmick now.

SPAM: I think we’ve all done hadouken-hadouken-hadouken-hadouken or TIGER (high)-TIGER (low)-TIGER (high)-TIGER (low) against the computer or a live foe.  I have.  Especially Zangief and Balrog (M. Bison in Japan).  But if you did that on a harder difficulty or against a competent foe you also saw a jumping roundhouse or a leaping short into a sweep.  You can only spam fireballs for so long.  I can beat Mortal Kombat by doing flying kicks and upper cuts.  And JUST flying kicks and uppercuts.  The flying kicks strategy is how I always beat Goro.  I could usually get a flawless victory on him too.  Even on tougher difficulties.  It seems easier to spam cheesy moves in Mortal Kombat to me.  So much so that I’d try to play fair then just say, “forget it I’m spamming to win…”  I’m sure the MK masters out there know ways to break those kinds of things, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating when some chump starts doing it to you…or any less lame when you see it work on the game’s hulking sub-boss!  One cause of this problem is reflected in the next item!

Diversity:  I mentioned this in my Street Fighter post, but it wasn’t until I did my Mortal Kombat post that I realized how diverse Street Fighter is in comparison.  Street Fighter had two characters that played essentially the same, Ryu and Ken.  In Mortal Kombat, except for special moves, they all essentially play the same.  And it struck me the reason why, no one really cared about the fight.  I never did as a kid.  I typically just rushed through the fight however I could…I only cared about fatalities and unlocking secrets.  In a way MK’s secrets and violence kind of trapped it.  By giving all the characters the same basic set of moves with the same range, speed, and strength, it made it essentially the same game over and over with different kills at the end of each round and those kills are what I looked forward to.

Fun: The most important thing to me.  To this day I can plug in Champion Edition or Super into my Nomad or CDX and pick up right where I left off as though it was 1992 all over again.  I can have just as much fun, find just as much challenge, and remember all my timing and moves through straight muscle memory.  I admit I haven’t played Mortal Kombat since I quit playing it in the 90s (though I have played the newer ones!)

All of this is not an indictment of Mortal Kombat at all.  I love the game.  I loved the time I spent with it and I still cherish the franchise as the brutal cousin of Street Fighter, the Asia-gothic-hellscape fighting game that still has plenty of room to grow and reinvent itself at every opportunity.  I just prefer Street Fighter.  All of these opinions are of course mine only.  I think Mortal Kombat fans also have good points as to why they prefer their franchise and I’d love to hear some.

Which do you guys prefer?

In my opinion it’s a clear win and a…

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KO

…for Street Fighter!

My original strategy guides from the 90s.  Before the internet…books like these were the only way to get info!

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Life Lessons from Video Games Versus Mode: Mortal Kombat

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Mortal Kombat…  I admit I never played Mortal Kombat in the arcades when the cabinet first came out (though I remember it took some of the crowd away from my SFII cabinet at the skating rink…) What got my attention with this game were two things: word of mouth and the ad campaign.

I was already used to Street Fighter’s cartoon graphics and its somewhat Looney Tunes violence (even literally seeing stars when dizzy) but I heard a new game was out that upped the maturity level.  It showed real violence and blood and, rumor had it, you could even kill people in this game!  To a 10-12 year old this sounded amazing.  I couldn’t believe any of this could be true!  Then the ads came out for the home version.  The epic commercial featuring 90s techno music and the single shout of “MORTAL KOMBAAAT!” got everyone’s attention.  Followed immediately by the firestorm from parents’ groups and politicians saying the game was too violent for kids and should be banned.  All this did was make kids like me who didn’t pay attention realize “hey I gotta see this bloody game!”

Again I got it for the Sega Genesis, and in this case I was LUCKY.  While the SNES version bent to the will of parents’ groups and removed the bloody aspects, the Sega version just made you put in a code.  This was before the internet folks so, like all the codes I learned, I went to the local FoodMax, opened up GamePro magazine, found the code (down, up, left, left A, right down) and repeated it over and over as I  walked home.  Voila.  Bloody Mortal Kombat.

Mortal Kombat was like nothing I’d ever played before.  I half expected it to play like Street Fighter, it was what I was used to.  I was shocked when pressing back didn’t block, and finding that block button was tricky!  But once I got into it Mortal Kombat, and the superior Mortal Kombat II, sucked me in.  The digitized characters looked more “grown-up” than the cartoons of Street Fighter.  The flinging blood, the wild special moves, and the fatalities…oh the fatalities.  Finding these out was a gold mine of gaming information.  I couldn’t memorize them, I had to write them all down and then play the game over and over until I could execute each one.  Ripping out spinal cords (I was a huge fan of Predator so this was awesome to me), pulling out hearts, uppercutting off heads, skulls spitting fire…this was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

Again I felt lucky to have my 6 button controller and the Sega version on MK I.  I learned Mortal Kombat, not playing alone, but with my buddy Mike, who was far better at it than I was (I still trump you in Street Fighter though, Mike…)  We played it relentlessly and learned all the kills, environmental kills, and secret characters and levels.  They still stick with me, after all these years, and its etched into my adolescent gaming memory.

So what gave Mortal Kombat its legacy?

1.)    Maturity: Until Mortal Kombat the most “badass” game in the arcade was…Pit Fighter…shudder…  Street Fighter was full of cartoon characters and cartoon violence, all the beat em ups had a similar look and feel.  Mortal Kombat, with digitized actors playing the characters had a more “cinematic” ambience.  By now I was into Tae Kwon Do and I could recognize the realism in the basic combat moves and appreciated it as a step toward “growing up” in gaming.  The blood and violence just filled out what I expected as a maturing gamer to see more and more of.  Boy was that right…

2.)    Unique Control: After the success of Street Fighter many games copied its controls and animated style to varying degrees of success.  Mortal Kombat was the first game of its kind to use high-punch, low-punch, high-kick, low-kick uppercuts, etc that I ever played.  These moves were all designed to set up special moves that would do the real damage.  And the special moves themselves were terrific and memorable, “GET OVER HERE!” Raiden’s nonsensical babbling during his torpedo move, and Sub-Zero’s Freeze attack.  It didn’t FEEL like other fighting games at the time, but I’ve found, especially as 3D takes over the fighting game genre…the control scheme has become more popular.

3.)    Fascinating Characters: As far as standard attacks, all Mortal Kombat characters essentially play the same.  What makes them cool is their look and their special moves.  Kano was one of my favorites, he just looked wicked with that cyborg eye.  I usually played as Scorpion though. That vicious spear and 90s Ninja outfit made him a stand out option.  Even non-playable Goro still sticks with me as one of the most memorable bosses in video game history.

4.)    Marketing: Mortal Kombat hit at just the right time.  Gamers were maturing, violence in gaming was a hot topic, and the market was expanding.  All the noise people made in fear of Mortal Kombat just made it more interesting.  It stays true to the cliche, no such thing as bad publicity!

5.)    Secrecy:  This concept goes hand-in-hand with Mortal Kombat.  I didn’t believe fatalities were real until I saw one myself.  I just assumed it was talk.  I remember when a guy in my 7th grade class, Charles, mentioned Reptile the first time.  I didn’t believe the character existed…then he did.  For every secret proved to be true, two more theoretical ones appeared.  For every one debunked five more appeared.  If just ONE of all those proved to be grounded in some reality, it made us plug the cartridges back in again and buy the next sequel!

So there is my recollection of Mortal Kombat and why I loved it.  As I mentioned Mortal Kombat II was even better.  I never even tried to play the arcade of that one and just bought it when it came out (or got it for birthday or Christmas…yes kids…games have been 50-60 dollars for a LONG time…)  Playing as new characters, adding new fatalities, kinds of fatalities, and stage hazards made the game fresh and fascinating.  It, like Street Fighter has gone 3D, added new gameplay styles and mechanics, and even jumped genres (Shaolin Monks was an awesome game…), and while it didn’t retain the very basics of the original, they have generally felt true to the original, with secrets, wild characters, and crazy kills.

Next post will be my final comparison and why I prefer one over the other (I’m sure everyone can see where this is going!)

And for  bonus:

Life Lessons from Video Games Versus Mode: Street Fighter 2

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Street Fighter II…  Capcom’s sequel to the now-obscure Street Fighter changed the face of fighting games.  Multiple, selectable characters, specific special moves, bright graphics; it took everything that could be learned from beat em ups like Double Dragon and simplified it into a one-on-one tournament fighting game.

I won’t go into the game’s colorful history.  That’s not the focus of this review, this will just be my history of Street Fighter.

My first introduction to this legend of the arcade occurred in 6th grade.  Our middle school typically took students with decent grades and no suspensions on an “incentive” trip to a skating rink or a bowling alley.  That six weeks we all went to an local bowling alley for a couple of hours.  I wasn’t interested in bowling really, but the alley had two arcade machines.  I don’t remember what the other one was, but one was Street Fighter II.  There was a queue of kids lined up at one stick, and a kid named Ralph dominating the other.  I got into the queue, not knowing what this game was or why there was a line and one-by-one kids fell as Ralph took them out.  When it was my turn I put in my two quarters, selected the character I thought looked the most interesting (I chose Blanka…all I thought was “wow big green monster!”) and preceded to lose two rounds.  I didn’t do too badly.  In fact after the fight I remember saying, “I didn’t know what I was doing!” with a laugh and Ralph telling me, “Actually you didn’t do so badly…”

I only went to the arcade on rare instances or when the school went to a place that had some machines so I had to wait for a home version in order to really play games.  Despite having only played the game one time, I got swept up into the craze when Street Fighter II: Champion Edition came out on the Sega Genesis.

It was here that I really learned the game.  The Genesis standard controller wasn’t great for these games, but buying a six button controller made it PERFECT for Street Fighter (in fact the licensed “Street Fighter” controllers that came out with the release of SFIV look suspiciously like Sega 6-Button controllers…) and I played the game religiously.  So much so that on trips to the Rivergate Skate Center during 7th and 8th Grade incentive trips I started to run the Street Fighter II machine.  I originally played as Sagat, having recently seen Jean Claude van Damme’s Kickboxer but eventually moved to Ken, and solidified using Ken once super moves were introduced in Super Street Fighter II.

So what makes Street Fighter II a legend?

1.)    Design: Starting with the first thing a gamer would see when they first laid eyes on the cabinet or picked up the cartridge box.  The characters were all unique (except of course the Ryu-Ken similarities) and colorful.  Similarly the backgrounds were all character-specific and had great animations.

2.)    Graphics: Tied to design, the graphics of the game were amazing at the time.  The characters moved fluidly and smoothly, their jumps and attacks all looked better than anything I’d seen before, and the special moves truly looked special

3.)    Diversity: All the 14 of the 16 characters in Street Fighter II Champion Edition were unique.  Though similar commands were used for special moves, they didn’t execute the exact same moves (though they may be similar) and ALL the basic attacks were individual to each character.  Also each character (except essentially the four “boss” characters) had unique story-based endings that gave the game massive replayability.  Beating the game with Ryu was an entirely different prospect to beating it with Vega.  Similarly, fighting each enemy took thought.  You couldn’t always use the same strategy to beat Zangief as you did to beat Chun Li.  Until you mastered it…your brain had to be awake for this game.

4.)    Ease of Play: the most important aspect of a fighting game to me…and something I feel they’ve lost, even the Street Fighter series, over the years.  Fighting games are GREAT because they are “pick-up-and-play” games.  Like I said, I never played before losing terrifically to Ralph in that first game.  But I did ok.  It’s not button mashing, you don’t get far in Street Fighter doing that, but the attacks, moves, and special moves are all so easy to figure out and execute a player can easily learn how to play one or two characters after playing the game only a handful of times.  This pre-dates the over-complexity that I feel has been added into fighting games.  Long-strings of combos, idiotic “air-juggles,” and multiple counter moves are just more than I want in a fighting game.  Keep it simple and fun for me…

5.)    CONTROL: Tied to the last one but by far the most important aspect of the game.  Street Fighter II‘s control was a revolution to me.  It was intuitive to the player and even made sense for the actions being executed.  Pressing “back” to block was a stroke of genius.  Six attacks varying in strength, 3 punches and 3 kicks, all useful (thought admittedly I played for YEARS with just a jab-fierce and short-roundhouse button setup on PS1) “Down-Down+Forward-Forward” is actually the motion you’d expect a character to do when throwing a fireball.  The same goes for the Shoryuken and the Hundred-Hand Slap.   I don’t think I’ve ever played a game with more perfect control (but woe be unto the second player who’s used to playing first player…and has to reverse all those commands!)

Street Fighter II revolutionized arcade gaming.  Through various iterations of II, eventually Alpha (Alpha 3 is my favorite of the series by far…the most balanced and best character roster I feel), a 3D game (EX…ugh), and now back to 2D with Street Fighter IV (and its iterations), it retained basically the same controls.  It’s heaped on many new complex concepts, and crazy characters, but at it’s based on the same framework.

Next time will be another arcade fighting game that revolutionized the genre, Mortal Kombat!

Off the Top of My Head #7: Parental Christmas Cleverness

Off The Top of My Head

Every family has holiday traditions that are unique.  My family used to go for Chinese food every Thanksgiving and play Trivial Pursuit (the adults anyway) on Christmas.

Though we weren’t a rich family, I always credit my parents for doing whatever they had to do to make holidays as perfect as possible.  My mom fought parents during the Cabbage Patch craze, called toy stores and had clerks acting as informants looking for me a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles “Leatherhead” figure, and even bought an 11 year old a set of swords from a xeroxed mail-order catalog.

She also liked to have fun with our presents.  She had a couple of sneaky-snooping kids who were home alone all day during Christmas and Summer Break (both my sister and I have summer birthdays) while she and my father worked.  She knew we’d snoop around for our presents…and so she set about hiding them in creative places.  She somehow managed to hide two bikes, a skateboard, and a scooter in the late 80s in our mid-sized condo.  I still don’t know how she did that…

To this day I can say, though my presents were always around the house…I only ever had access to one, the swords.  I was there when they were delivered, and I checked them out before she put them under her bed til my birthday.  My favorite hidden present is from Christmas…circa 1992.

I was a Sega player.  Since my mom got me that Sega Game Gear and I traded my NES for a Genesis, I loved Sega products, games, and franchises.  That year I asked for a Sega CD.  My mom played it cool with me and didn’t let on that I would get it.  I remember searching everywhere for that thing.  We set up our tree (we were using a little 4′ one at this point), laid out the crocheted tree skirt (which was made the the GIANT 6′ tree we used to have! and is still awesome…), put presents underneath, but nothing that looked like a Sega CD to me.  I dug through the house, looked in closets, under beds…nowhere to be found.

Christmas morning I awoke to find extra presents in the pile under the tree, we went through them and…still no Sega CD.  Eventually my mom, registering my disappointment, said “there’s one more.  Look under the tree.”  I did, confused, there was clearly nothing left…  She said, “No UNDER the tree!”  I lifted the heavy crocheted green tree-skirt and there, with the little Christmas tree standing directly on the massive dense box, was my Sega CD.

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Mine actually came with “Sewer Shark,” which I played with my buddy Mike as navigator for months…

We still laugh about how my mom was so sneaky she once hid a HUGE present under the Christmas tree and I never knew about it until Christmas morning despite all my snooping…

So Merry Christmas to all the great, sneaky, fun parents out there.  The ones that give real presents like memories like that…long after present wrapped in colored paper has seen its last use.

Life Lessons from Video Games: Versus Mode!

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I’ve been playing video games since I 4 years old.  My first “gaming” system was an Atari 400 and was replaced (actually it was added to by) an Atari 800XL in the mid-80s.  I was a military kid who lived in secluded base-housing and, essentially, only knew my family.  I just assumed that everyone was playing Centipede, Missile Command, Frogger, and  Pac-Man.  In addition I had loads of games that almost no one has heard of but remain my all-time favorites; Sea Horse Hide n Seek, Ducks Ahoy, and Movie Musical Madness.  It wasn’t until my father retired from the USAF and we moved into “civilian” life that I first learned of what kinds of systems were popular.

I had an Atari…but never heard of an Atari 2600.  My memories of Pac-Man are slightly different from most others…the 400 and 800XL computers I had played different versions that actually (to me) looked superior to the 2600 version.  I only ever saw Commodore 64s and Apple IIs in school.  I never heard of Colecovision until I saw it on VH1’s I Love the 80s and never heard of Intellevision until James Rolfe did a video about it.  I DID hear of NES almost immediately after my we left the military lifestyle.

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I can remember being in my elementary school cafeteria in my private school blue shirt and slacks and a vicious little rich kid snarling at me, “What?  You don’t have Nintendo?! What’s ‘Atari’?”  I remember telling my mom that and she said, “I bet our Atari has better graphics than their ‘Nintendo…'”  And I immediately agreed.  And the game was on.

Over my lifetime I’ve seen numerous competitions in video games, systems, and gaming culture in general that are all just as frivolous and subjective as this one.  Sega vs. Nintendo.  Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat.  Sony vs. Microsoft.  It’s been fascinating to see them come and go, and each generation of hardware and software customers act like it’s the first time these things have ever been discussed.  I’ve been thinking a lot about all these various, senseless wars I’ve witnessed during my gaming life and thought I’d start sharing some of the most memorable.  Since this is just a little intro I thought I’d start with a brief look at the Atari vs NES.

Of course the Atari 400, which came out in 1979, and even the updated 800XL had nothing, hardware-wise, on the NES.  The NES came over from Japan with a library of games that would become classics (and some hardware strangeness that would fall into pop-culture obscurity).  Since the NES clearly has the edge in nearly every technical sense, I thought I’d look at just one thing that strikes me as amusing in terms of my old Ataris compared to the NES.

I started watching AVGN when the new Ghostbusters game was set to come out on current-gen consoles.  I heard a funny online reviewer had reviewed the NES Ghostbusters game and I was intrigued, I didn’t know there WAS one.  I turned on his review and was alarmed to see him reviewing a game I knew…only I knew it from my Atari 800XL…I knew it on floppy disk……and I knew a MUCH better version!  Smoother gameplay, more “ghostbuster-y” graphics, and less idiotic additions (like the gas station…)  Granted it was still a monotonous “wtf is going on?” kind of game, but the NES version looks like a butchered port…of an Atari game.  The Atari version was no masterpiece…but it’s definitely competitive with the later NES version!

That little fact did indeed help remind me that, although the most popular system might dominate the market, the reviews, and rewrite the history, for the minority of us who lived with other brands…we might have found a nice classic gem.

In two weeks I’ll start versus mode in earnest, and will try to do one every two weeks.  The first one will be the most appropriate way to start such a contest and has been a heated debate for almost 20 years…ladies and gentlemen…it will be: Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat!

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